James Hunter’s been fanning the flame of early R&B the hard way, revealing his jaw-dropping skills bit by bit.

James Hunter is cool. Not in the way we offhandedly call anything decent “cool” and not in the “wow, cool!” way you’d say it as a kid, but cool in the way you’d use the word to describe that bad motherfucker who’s so bad he never needs to tell you about it. James Brown was bad, but he wasn’t cool. Miles Davis breathed cool. Now, James Hunter may never change the game and die a legend, but the man knows cool. It’s the only way to describe how The Hard Way* packs so many offhanded, holy-what-the-what!? moments into what many folks wrongly dismissed as a merely enjoyable throwback R&B record. But it’s more than that. There’s wicked genius lurking in Hunter’s genial grooves.

James Hunter sounds like he started listening to R&B in 1956 and then gave up when Sam Cooke got shot in ’64

Part of the cool coming off The Hard Way comes from the very particular era of R&B that Hunter seems to so carefully and naturally inhabit: While Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, and Raphael Saadiq set their way-back soul machines to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s glory days of Aretha, Curtis, the Wicked Pickett and the Otises Redding and Clay, James Hunter sounds like he started listening to R&B in 1956 and then gave up the moment Sam Cooke got shot in ’64. That was a golden era in rhythm & blues — the same era Leon Bridges joyfully inhabits as well — when soul was a newborn form striving for uptown elegance and urbane sophistication. It was the time of Drifters and Miracles and Night Trains, and it’s an era that’s been mostly forgotten, save for a few golden oldies by groups that still pop up on soundtracks and soap commercials. But the joy of The Hard Way is how James Hunter makes it all sound so fresh by mastering every nuance of the music and delivering it with genuine passion and effortless cool — all recorded live in the studio, full-band, to analog tape. In mono.

Check the song “Tell Her” for a taste of his smooth croon and way with words. “Lady luck ain’t always home, sometimes you got to make your own” is the line that sets up the kind of extended metaphor, wordplay and circular rhyme-schemes that made Smokey Robinson a millionaire. Hunter’s vocals are spot-on Sam Cooke, but graced with a patina of cigarettes and Jameson’s Hunter likely acquired over decades playing pubs in the UK. As he doles out advice that would have helped me immensely in high school, Hunter is egged on by swaying horns and streetcorner harmonies provided, in part, by Allen Toussaint, a legend whose mere presence on an album acts as a bankable mark of quality.

Not all the tracks are sharkskin-smooth, though. When Hunter cuts loose he sweats out the kind of greasy grooves that caused riots at the Apollo before James Brown found his brand new bag. Hunter growls, howls and rips little guitar lines that cut to the quick in just a handful of notes. Hunter’s an economical guy and he’s not going to waste any time on extended solos or endless vamps. He makes his point and moves on.

With so little time and so many talents, Hunter is forced to blow your mind in little moments — a guitar line here, a cheeky rhyme there, or a vocal trick, like the machine-gun stutter he drops 2:20 in to “Class Act,” that makes you eyeball your speakers in disbelief. And that’s how James Hunter gets you — by dropping your jaw and then moving on before you can pick it up off the floor. And that’s what cool is all about.

*NOTE: This is just one of three equally brilliant James Hunter albums, and, when it came down to it, I settled on recommending The Hard Way for two reasons: First, it felt like the best introduction because it sits as a perfect middle-ground between the prettier People Gonna Talk and the grittier Minute By Minute. Second, well, Allen Toussaint. But, believe what I say: If you dig one, you’ll dig them all. If you dig none, I got nothing for you.

BONUS TRACKS: To give you an idea where James Hunter is coming from, we put together 10 tracks of the old stuff he seems to know so well…